Economists agree that 1999 will not be as good as this year for business and banking, but that is where agreement ends.

Forecasters in one camp feel the U.S. economy is lined up for a "soft landing." A mild slowdown but no recession, in other words, which also means the Federal Reserve may not cut interest rates much further, if at all.

On the other side are forecasters who think prospects for subpar business conditions and even a recession in 1999 are real and growing. That would translate to much lower interest rates than current levels.

"Reports of the economic expansion's demise are greatly exaggerated," said Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Bank Corp., paraphrasing Mark Twain.

"Looking ahead to 1999, we continue to believe pro-growth forces will outweigh the downside risks, albeit by a narrow margin," he said. "The U.S. economy will stay on a 'recession-free' diet but with slower real growth of 1.6% to 2.1%.-versus 3.4% to 3.9% from 1996 through 1998."

Mr. Hoffman said the Fed "can and will do whatever is necessary" to blunt a business downturn. He expects a pair of additional Fed rate cuts by mid-1999, bringing the overnight funds rate to 4.25%, from 4.75% now, and the bank prime lending rate to 7.25%.

Meanwhile, Ian Shepardson of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., said the nation's economy will remain robust enough that Wall Street players will soon worry that the Fed's next rate move may be up, not down. He expects growth of 2.5% next year.

"While we have long expected economic growth to slow in 1999, it is not set to collapse," he said. "The short-term risk is that the markets will be surprised by strength rather than weakness." A modest rise in inflation may reinforce that view.

But L. Douglas Lee, chief Washington economist at HSBC Securities, sees "no obstacles to lower rates on the horizon," even in the event of a small pickup in inflation. He expects the Fed to cut short-term rates to 4% by mid-1999.

Mr. Lee forecasts U.S. economic expansion of just 1.5% next year. He cautions that such an anemic pace "leaves little margin for error in a very high-risk environment" and is "heavily dependent on continued strong consumption spending."

Economists at Chase Securities Inc., New York, are yet more circumspect. "There are ample reasons to conclude that the U.S. economy is winded"-with strong prospects for subpar growth next year.

Among other things, they said, "consumers have little running room to support substantial new consumption gains, with savings near zero, unless they cash out of financial assets or go on a new debt binge."

Economist David A. Levy fully expects a recession next year, leading to a federal funds rate of just 1% by late next year or early in 2000.

Consumers, buoyed by the resurgence of the stock market, have delayed the downturn into 1999, he acknowledged, but stressed that "fundamentals for the global and domestic economies have not improved."

The depressed savings rate, caused in part by "aggressive consumer lending," reflects "an extraordinary and unsustainable consumer binge," asserted Mr. Levy, director of forecasting at the Levy Institute of Bard College, Annandale, N.Y.

And, he cautioned, "the more consumers extend themselves financially, the more wrenching the eventual pullback."

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